Opinion

Opinion | Joan Fitzgerald

In Trump times, cities must lead on climate change

Woman hand pulling open sunny sky cityscape curtain covering stormy city.
Tsung-Lin Wu/ Fotolia

As a candidate, Donald Trump vowed he would abandon the Paris Agreement, reverse President Obama’s climate initiatives, and bring back coal. As president-elect, he’s been more circumspect, but his appointment of climate-change denier Myron Ebell to head the transition at the EPA suggests he may try to make good on these promises.

If he does, the country needs a counterforce. That should come in the nation’s cities, where mayors have been far less polarized and often more creative than Washington in how they address climate change. Whether by transitioning to renewable energy, supporting smart grid development, pushing energy-efficient buildings, or supporting the infrastructure for electric vehicles, cities are already at the forefront of the fight. That’s because mayors of both parties know that climate action both improves the quality of life in their cities and creates economic opportunities.

Burlington, Vt., has become the first US city to meet all its electricity needs from renewable sources. About one-fourth of the city’s power is from a city-owned wood-burning facility. For the rest, Burlington purchases wind power and hydro and uses landfill methane.

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After being leveled by a tornado in 2007, Greensburg, Kan., was rebuilt under the leadership of Republican Mayor Bob Dixon, with guidance from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, as a sustainable city powered completely by renewable energy from biogas, small-scale solar, and its own wind farm. Dixon, a member of a White House task force on climate change, frequently says that sustainable urban development transcends party lines.

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San Diego is the largest city in the country to commit to going 100 percent renewable, in this case by 2035. In May, Republican Mayor Kevin Faulconer released a budget that commits $127 million to climate-change projects. Faulconer, like Dixon, does not see climate action as a partisan issue.

Cleveland, with support from the Cleveland Foundation and others, has been trying to develop offshore wind turbines on Lake Erie since 2004. After many false starts, construction is beginning on Project Icebreaker, deploying a specially designed turbine that can free itself from ice that would otherwise lock it up in the winter months. Should this six-turbine farm on Lake Erie be successful, a new wind-powered energy grid could be developed along the southern shores of all the Great Lakes.

Onshore wind power alone could supply more than 95 percent of Ohio’s electricity demand, according to the NREL. And there’s the potential for thousands of good jobs in the manufacturing supply chain for turbines and in their maintenance. The American Wind Energy Association estimates that Ohio could reap $57 million annually in property tax revenue and $26 million in lease payments to landowners by 2030 if wind power continues to develop.

But maintaining this progress has been a struggle. In 2014, Governor John Kasich signed legislation freezing the state’s push toward renewable energy adoption. A second Kasich-approved law increased the distance turbines must be located from abutting properties, which stopped the construction of 11 previously approved wind farms.

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And the going may get tougher; Ohio is one of several states where the Koch Brothers are pushing to undo legislation promoting renewable energy over fossil fuels.

Yet there could be some common ground on some projects. Trump seems serious about a major infrastructure initiative. Investing in a smart grid would be a great start. The nation’s current electrical grid is really a patchwork of grids that cannot communicate effectively, and have reached capacity. That must change if the grid is to handle increasing amounts of renewable energy. Another crucial need is for cities to protect themselves against sea-level rise and adopt green stormwater-management approaches. That challenge looms regardless of whether you believe climate change is naturally occurring or human-made.

Republicans are champions of local control. More than 1,000 mayors have signed on to the US Conference of Mayors Climate Protection Agreement, which commits them to urging the federal government to pass greenhouse gas-reduction legislation. On climate issues, mayors of both parties will be letting Trump know both the opportunities and the stakes. He would be wise to listen.

Joan Fitzgerald is a professor of urban and public policy at Northeastern University. She is working on her next book, “Greenovation: Urban Leadership on Climate Change.”